My Experiences With Graph Paper Press & Photoshelter For Website Creation
By Dan Carr | December 20, 2011
I recently overhauled my personal portfolio website using a combination of services from Graph Paper Press and Photoshelter, two popular Photographer's solutions, and I wanted to share my experience about the product and service that both companies offer.
Time for a change
I've had the same portfolio website for about four years now, I did the design on the original one myself and it was a fairly simple combination of HTML layout objects and Flash elements for providing a slideshow and some swishy looking galleries. Apart from getting a bit bored with the old look of the site I also wanted to migrate to something that was iOS friendly. A growing proportion of web traffic is from mobile devices these days and what's more, Adboe just announced that they will no longer be developing Flash for mobile at all. This means that whilst currently it is mainly Apple devices that non longer support Flash, soon Android will follow.
Attached to my original website I have a Wordpress blog and I've become very familiar with Wordpress over the last couple of years. Whilst it was originally developed as a blogging platform, it's ease of development means that now you can create just about any type of website you can imagine from it. What's more, if you can imagine it then there is very likely a readily available template out there already that will get you 90% there with just a few clicks. For these two reasons I decided to base my portfolio website on the Wordpress platform, even though I had no intention of it being a "blog" per say.
Templates, templates, templates & more templates
The first thing that I want to say on the subject of templates is please please do not think of a template as a final solution. It's one of the biggest mistakes that I'm seeing out there at the moment. The problem is that a few companies have become very popular with the photography community and because they all have a relatively small number of templates available, many sites end up looking the same. Try to think of these templates as mere staring points or a foundation, then build your site on top of it. Yes you will need to take some time to learn about modifying custom CSS files but the information is readily available with just a few Google searches and once you get the hang of it you won't believe how much you can change the look of a whole site with just a few lines of code.
This isn't an exhaustive list of possible template providers though, this if about my personal experience with my recent site design so let's concentrate on Graph Paper Press. They have a collection of 20 or so templates of which some are free and some require a payment. I'll save you the contemplation time and say just go right for the paid themes, the support forum alone is worth the cost of admission.
One thing to realize about these costs is that whilst they are labelled quarterly or annual, you do NOT need to continue to pay them to keep your website. If you pay an annual fee just once, all that it means is that after one year you will no longer have access to download new themes, or to continue to access the support forum. Your current website will still remain functional so it doesn't need to be an ongoing cost. With that said, Graph Paper Press have an infuriating system in place at the moment that will automatically charge you for the next year or next quarter unless you specifically remember to call and cancel. It offers no warning or reminder that you are about to be charged again and I fell into this trap recently. They did refund me immediately and I did inform them of my opinions on this system....
Anyway I digress..... Once you have paid you will have access to their video library which is fairly basic but still worth a watch if you are new to it all. Most important though is the support forum which is an absolute wealth of knowledge and ideas on how to customize the themes to your suiting. If you can't find the answer you are looking for then you can leave a question on the forum and one of GPPs staff will respond to you , usually within a couple of hours. The service I have received from them via this forum is exemplary , I can't praise them high enough. Some amount of CSS knowledge is assumed when using the forum and asking them questions though. If you are not familiar with how to modify CSS on a Wordpress theme then you need to get that figured out first before going to them. They will gladly help you figure out a line of code but they ask that you know what to do with it when they give it to you. I don't consider myself a coding whizz in the slightest and I have no issues with it though. Tricky little changes that would have taken me hours and hours to figure out were often solved by them in mere minutes. Frankly I sometimes felt bad that I had ONLY paid them $100 for the help I was receiving and the time I was saving!
Whilst all of the themes have an 'options' menu in the appearance section that allows menu based changes to some main design elements, there is room for improvement in that area. To make your GPP site 'your own' you really do need to put in a little bit of leg work with the custom CSS particularly to change the look of the menus and some of the spacing between key elements.
This is the front page of my new site built around a modified GPP theme. The central image is a slideshow, for which the them has easily customizable settings, and I can switch content of the three boxes below the slideshow. Currently they link to information about my blog, my prints and my gear list. Wordpress has an excellent menu creation tool within it that allows you to quickly customize items and links within a menu. You'll need to use CSS to change the look and spacing of it but the actual content of it is done in an easy-to-use user interface.
Photoshelter is an online image storage service that allows the creation of custom galleries, lightboxes, print sales, password protected images, client file delivery and much much more. If you are entirely unfamiliar with it then take a look at their website but many people will know what I'm talking about. Whilst setting out to make a new site I figured it would be a good time to integrate some sort of archive and client delivery are in my site. I used to use SmugMug to create client galleries but I never like the process of sending people away from my site. Photoshelter makes it pretty easy to make things appear 'seamless' though.
The first step is setting up a custom CNAME which allows you to mask your personal area on the Photoshelter site behind your own URL. So for example instead of it saying http://www.photoshelter.dancarrphotography.com with a custom CNAME it says http://www.archive.dancarrphotography.com This. looks much better if you are sending a link to someone although for some unknown reason using Photoshelter's own "invite" system within a gallery still e-mails people the non-CNAME version of the URL. Anyway once you have set up a custom CNAME the next thing you can do is modify the look of all your Photoshelter pages. These are pages like galleries, archive pages or Lightboxes that you might want to send to a client. To achieve that seamless integration into your own site you want it to look exactly like the pages you created on your main site. For example you might take a look at this gallery here and whilst it seems to be an integral part of my site, that page actually resides on the Photoshelter servers. The reason that it is able to look such a part of my site is because all the headers and menus, as well as the things like the "follow me" section in the footer are mimicked from the pages I designed with Graph Paper Press. Photoshelter worked closely with Graph Paper Press to design a very clever little page that scans the CSS of your GPP page and copies it to all of your Photoshelter pages. It supports some but not all of the GPP themes though so make sure you investigate which ones are supported before you begin to modify the GPP theme. More info on that can be found here.
The Problem With Photoshelter
Photoshelter is much much more expensive than Graph Paper Press and it is a recurring cost. If you stop paying then you will loose your archive and galleries you created for clients. I don't have a problem with that though, they are offering entirely different services but I have to be honest and say that I have been less than impressed with Photoshelter as a whole. There are some elements that I love, like that ease at which I can create portfolio galleries from new images but I have also run into many many troubles. Some of them have just left me scratching my head wandering how they could still be there in a service that seems to be so widely regarded and is now several years old. Like the issue I mentioned above with the CNAMEs. You go to the hassle of masking your URL but then when you create a gallery and click the share button to send it to a client it sends them the unmasked version of the URL. Totally defeats the point of it ! Each Photoshelter theme has a box to enter some custom CSS in it to aid further customization but if you switch themes, perhaps to check the look of another very quickly, it will delete all your custom CSS that you carefully wrote for the other one. I also ran into trouble with using foreign accents in metadata captions where it replaced them all with ? The process of signing people up for an account in order for them to download photos from your Lightboxes is so confusing that 4 out of 5 clients have to seek help from me to get it sorted and more than 50% of the time , the gallery invitations to clients that are sent via the Photoshelter service go straight into their SPAM box. The list actually goes on quite a long way and whilst the support team are easily accessible via e-mail, and respond quickly, they don't always have an answer. After only a few weeks of playing with the service I was in contact repeatedly with support 4 or 5 times about some fairly big bugs and it left me disappointed as a whole and frankly quite surprised. I began to look at other options out there and discovered that there really is not another service that offers a comparable level of customization and features. Therein probably lies the problem as there is little for them to worry about and despite not being that happy with Photoshelter I can't find anything else to use that will satisfy my needs at the moment.
My recommendation for anyone considering it is to use the service on it's own for a couple of months before spending the time integrating it into your site. If you think you can live with it's shortcoming then you can put the time into making it part of your site visually. I did things wrong, I trusted the fact that so many people use the service and went straight to the customization. Now that I have a site that looks good, I'm loathe to pull out the Photoshelter element of it even though I'm not totally satisfied because I have time invested into it for now.
If you are considering Graph Paper Press though then go right ahead, it's a fantastic service and their support is second to none. You can view my completed website here.
Get articles like this in your inbox: Sign Up